Pennsylvania is currently home to the Berks County Family Detention Center (BCRC), one of three detention centers for immigrant families, where children as young as two-weeks-old have been incarcerated, and families have been held for more than a year at a time.
In 2019 the Berks County Detention Center (BCRC) will be entering its fifth year in operation as a immigrant family prison. That is five years of human rights abuses, due process violations, disregard of Pennsylvania and Federal law and the immoral and unjust treatment of immigrant families. The Shut Down Berks Coalition will continue to fight until this inhumane prison is shut down and family detention is put to an end in Pennsylvania. Governor Tom Wolf, Lt. Governor John Fetterman and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services have the power to issue an Emergency Removal Order (ERO) on the Berks County Detention Center, an action that would ensure the facility can no longer be used as a prison. It is not only their moral obligation to keep families out of this prison but their legal responsibility.
The continued incarceration of these immigrant families and the operation of BCRC is a disgrace and a stain on our Commonwealth. However, this stain could be erased by the PA Department of Human Services (PA DHS) and Governor Tom Wolf, who have the power to shut the doors of BCRC and pressure ICE to release these families. Unfortunately, neither PA DHS nor Governor Wolf have shown to have the political will to fully pursue all means available for releasing these families and shutting the center down.
In August 2015, a Federal Court determined that the practice of detaining children in jail-like settings is illegal, and ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to immediately release all families held in immigrant family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania (see full report on federal litigation). In January 2016, the PA Department of Human Services revoked the license to operate the Berks County Family Residential Center, and the facility license has been under legal review since February 22, 2016. In the past two years the Shut Down Berks Coalition has repeatedly presented PA DHS and the Governor’s office with information on the human rights violations taking place at BCRC and what actions he can take to protect and release these families (see Human Rights First reports from Aug. 2015 and Feb. 2016). Extensive legal research was presented directly to Governor Wolf outlining the specific powers that he and PA DHS has to shut down BCRC, and yet they have refused to take action. The laundry list of abuses suffered by parents and children, children as young as two weeks old, has not been enough to spur anything more than minimal action.
This nation, this state, that speaks of liberty and justice, will only speak hollow words until the Berks County Family Detention Center and all family detention centers are closed. During a time where the national dialogue includes talk of reviving internment camps and religious registries, now is the time for Governor Wolf to take action. Every day BCRC is allowed to operate, is another day of legitimizing the growing movement of hate, racism, and xenophobia plaguing our country.
Read more on the harms caused by family detention and recommendations for ending family detention:
- American Immigration Council Report “Divided by Detention: Asylum-Seeking Families’ Experiences of Separation”
- AILA resources on Family Detention. 2016.
- “Detained children risk life-long physical and mental harm” Karen Zwi, Pediatrician and Associate Professor, UNSW. 2015.
- Human Rights First “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging”
- Grassroots Leadership resources on Family Detention
- Why Detaining Children is Harmful. UNICEF. 2018.
- Mental health implications of detaining asylum seekers: systematic review. The British Journal of Psychiatry
- Detention of Immigrant Children. Council on Community Pediatrics. 2017
The Shut Down Berks Coalition is a group of organizations and individuals fighting to close the Berks family prison in Pennsylvania and end the practice of imprisoning immigrant families in the U.S.
Shut Down Berks Campaign Press*
- April 25, 2018. The truth about the Berks County Residential Center. Al Día
- April 23, 2018. Amid licensing limbo, immigration advocates push to shut down Pa. detention center. WHYY
- October 23, 2017. Paper flowers bring messages of freedom from Berks Detention Center. WHYY
- May 10, 2017. Advocates Pressure Gov. Wolf To Shut Down Berks Residential Center. KYW Newsradio 1060
- May 9, 2017. Pa. fights to shut down immigrant family detention center in Berks. Philadelphia Inquirer
- May 5, 2017. Pennsylvania Doubles Down on Revoking Child-Care License for Controversial Family Detention Center. Rewire News
- April 24, 2017. Berks detention center for immigrant mothers and children wins licensing appeal. The Philadelphia Inquirer
- December 21, 2016. The Berks Mothers’ Christmas Wish: Their Families’ Freedom. Philly Magazine
- December 19, 2016. Berks detention center protesters arrested in Harrisburg. 69 News
- September 2, 2016. 22 Migrant Women Held in Pennsylvania Start a Hunger Strike to Protest Detention. The New York Times
- April 23, 2016. Immigration facility guard given jail time for sexual assault of detainee. The Guardian
- March 5, 2016. U.S. holding families in custody to keep others from crossing the border. The Washington Post
- February 22, 2016. Berks County Detention Center Housing Immigrant Families Loses License. NBC 10
- February 22, 2016. A Visit to Berks Family Detention Center Makes Clear Why They Lost their License. Immigration Impact
- October 23, 2015. Pa. won’t renew license of immigrant-family detention center. Philadelphia Inquirer
- September 15, 2015. Berks County center criticized for asylum detention methods. Philadelphia Inquirer
- June 17, 2015. Migrant children and parents await their fate in US detention centers. Al Jazeera America
- June 10, 2015. Mothers at Berks family detention camp launch work strike (Updated). Al Día
*This is a selection, not a comprehensive list.